The Uncertain Future of Work

What is considered a workplace? What are the new working protocols?

The future of work is likely to be even more precarious and unequal than it is right now—and three researchers made that prediction even before the pandemic hit. The study comes from Jeremy Aroles of Durham University Business School in the U.K., Nathalie Mitev of King’s College in London, and François‐Xavier de Vaujany of the University Paris-Dauphine. Their review paper draws from the past 30 years’ worth of research into “new work practices” that include remote work, collaborative entrepreneurship, and digital nomadism.

The researchers focused on four separate dimensions:

What people perceive as working practices: These include different types of employment, such as entrepreneurship and freelance work.

What people perceive to be a workplace: The definition now includes home working, hot desking, and shared offices.

Working protocols for individuals and organizations: This dimension refers to the extent to which companies employ elements such as flexible working hours, co-employment, and contract work.

Power and control in work: This dimension refers to the extent to which work practices affect the power relationship between managers and employees, whether those employees are permanent staff members or freelance workers.

“Globalization, economic volatility, and technological changes have been the catalyst for a number of changes to the wider workplace in recent years,” says Aroles. “The impact of COVID-19 has called into question this globalization, created further economic volatility, and forced millions of workers to work from home and further utilize technologies, accelerating the transition into a new world of work.”

The researchers expect to see an increase in new modes of employment, including zero-hour contracts and other forms of unsecure employment; a growth in the popularity of online labor platform workforces; the development of crowd-based and collaborative forms of entrepreneurship; and an increasing number of new spatial work arrangements such as co-working spaces. All of these fall outside the normal realm of a “formal organization” and blur the boundaries between work and private life.

The researchers predict that home and virtual offices are likely to be key components of the new world of work. They anticipate a rise in the number of those who work from home; those who work from nontraditional workplaces such as restaurants and coffee shops; and those who work on the go, especially during their commutes.

The researchers suggest that there will be an increase in flexibility of employment, meaning there will be more part-time workers in organizations, more employment mediated by recruiting agencies, and more contract work by short-term employees paid by the hour or project. Flexible working times and hybrid forms of work, such as digital nomadism, are also set to rise. Because these work configurations are short-term and offer little security to workers, the academics expect management groups and organizations will enjoy an increase in power.

“This ‘new’ world of work simply repeats asymmetrical power relations and inequalities that characterize current work activities,” says Aroles. “The changes exacerbate even further disparities, inequalities, and precarity in employment.”

“Mapping Themes in the Study of New Work Practices” was published August 2019 in the journal New Technology, Work, and Employment.